Today was spent much like yesterday, and so I shall not bore you, Dear Reader, by repeating myself. Instead I shall relate the events of last night.
After supper (which was exactly like breakfast except that the coffee was more bitter) everyone gathered in the main cavern, sitting on the stone floor and facing the rear of the room (that is, the side opposite the entry). Mr. Mason got up in front of everyone and began speaking of something I did not know, naming off locations and people that did not sound familiar. I was at the back of the group with Zebediah, and did not notice that Miss Means had snuck up behind us until she put her hand on my shoulder. "Come with me," she whispered. Though we were silent, and the light in the cavern was dim, I still felt nearly every pair of eyes in the room follow us as we headed toward the far end, through a short passageway and into what served as the kitchen. Miss Means lit a candle, then used it to light one more; those served us well enough for light in the small room. There were barrels and boxes stacked against the walls, and a fire pit with nothing inside but warm coals. A couple of kettles sat on the grate over the pit, and there was a large basin filled with water in which sat all the used coffee cups from dinner. Had she brought us here to do dishes while the other students learned important information?
Mr. Jenkins appeared after a moment, seeming very cheery as usual. "There you are," he said, and sat down cross-legged on the floor. As Miss Means followed his example, so did Zebediah and I. "We just wanted to fill you in," he told us, "since you kind of got here in the middle of things."
"Might I say one thing first?" Miss Means interjected, looking both apologetic and defiant, if that is possible. "The others think you're stuck up, keeping to yourselves like you've done. I just thought I'd let you know."
I think my jaw dropped open out of pure shock. How could she speak to us in such a way? "I... beg your pardon?" I asked, hoping I didn't sound too rude, though she would've deserved it.
"I'd like for you two to get along here all right," Miss Means went on as if she had done nothing more than remark upon the weather. "And if that's going to happen, we need to work together. All of us."
"What Ivy means to say," Mr. Jenkins interrupted, winking comically at Miss Means over the pun he thought he had been clever to make, "is that the other kids--er, young adults, or what-have-you--aren't too sure about you. But we would like for everyone to be friends, so... don't be shy, all right?" He flashed me a smile. I felt Zebediah tense next to me, and lean ever so slightly closer. "We don't bite."
"I... shall try. We shall," I said. I reached down to take Zebediah's hand. "It's just that... we have been so used to relying only on ourselves for weeks. Indeed, we had no other company but each other for almost a week straight. And we have... come to understand that we cannot trust everyone--or anyone--at first sight."
"Why do you say that?" asked Mr. Jenkins.
I hesitated, looking at Zebediah. He met my gaze and shook his head very slightly. "It is... a long story," I said, trusting him in that we should wait to tell our tale.
"It's going to be a long night," Miss Means countered, drawing her knees up to wrap her arms around them.
Again, I hesitated. Mr. Jenkins must have noticed, for he said, "Let's tell her our story first, Ivy. The whole story. So she knows she can trust us."
I know now that even if a person tells one "the whole story," that doesn't mean one can or should trust them. The whole thing could very well be a lie. But I was at least willing to listen.
"I don't know where your Gift came from," Mr. Jenkins began, "but ours, almost all of us in this place, got it from our parents. And they got it from a cave very like this one."
"In the war," I said, thrilled at the thought that I actually knew something he was talking about.
"That's right," Mr. Jenkins said, looking a little puzzled.
"Professor Eberhart told me. That's where I got it, too. My parents... must have been with your parents! In the cavern, trapped by the Loyalists!" I suddenly felt an odd sort of kinship with Mr. Jenkins and Miss Means and everyone else here with us. We were related, in a way, through a common past. I'd never felt like I was related to anyone but the people I made up in my head, relatives that never were and never would be.
"Right," said Mr. Jenkins, looking a little disappointed that he hadn't been able to tell me the whole tale in what, I am sure, would have been a very exciting and amusing way. He is a very charming young man (and if I guess right, I think that is probably why Zebediah does not like him), and I am sure he would have told it splendidly.
"How did you all come to be here?" I asked. "Well, the professor told me that. How you came to be here, in this cave. But how did all you who are Illuminated get to be in one place, at the academy?"
"Ahh, that's the interesting bit," said Mr. Jenkins, his previous smile lighting back up. "Because some of our parents had different names than when they were involved with the war, or some had a different name during the war, then went back to their real name afterwards." This was exactly what happened to me! But I said nothing, allowing him to continue. "Professor Eberhart managed to keep tabs on them all, though, through coded letters and wires, and secret gatherings--"
"Stop it," Miss Means sighed, rolling her eyes. "He is speculating about all of this. All we know is that Professor Eberhart helped to get us all here, one way or another."
"But that makes for a much more interesting story!" Mr. Jenkins protested. He sighed and turned his attention back to Zebediah and me. "Regardless, here we are. Some of us were at the academy on scholarship, having come from less than prosperous families. I think there might've been a fund set aside years ago to help with anything that might come up concerning the Illuminated families and their childr--"
"Speculation," sang out Miss Means, examining her nails.
"Anyway," Mr. Jenkins went on, "he gathered us all at the academy, a couple at a time so as not to raise suspicion. He is close with the headmaster, who, by the way, was totally ignorant of there being any Illuminated students at his school. Ivy and I have been here since we were twelve, which is when they start out at the academy. Some other students have just begun this term. So our levels of skill at Illumination are greatly varied."
"I only learned of my gift a few weeks ago," I said softly.
"But you are doing quite well already," said Miss Means, rather unexpectedly. She had been rather brusque with me up until that point, but her voice and expression were earnest. "I watched you today, and you have surpassed many of the students that have been practicing for years. How old are you?" she asked, squinting at me as if she could see inside me and calculate my age, like counting the rings on a tree stump.
"Eighteen," I answered.
She thought a minute more, and her lips moved as if she were speaking to herself. "Your parents were probably Illuminated right before your conception, so you got a full dose--Ow!"
Mr. Jenkins had elbowed her in the ribs. "I do not think that sort of talk is entirely appropriate," he muttered.
"I was only thinking aloud," she argued.
"Yes, that seems to be your problem."
Miss Means elbowed him back; he shoved her shoulder so she nearly fell over, but she reached up to pinch his ear between two fingers, then twisted. Mr. Jenkins' face contorted with pain. "Mercy, mercy," he whispered, holding his hands up in supplication. She gave one more tweak, then let him go.
I watched all this, aghast, having never seen or heard of a young man and a young woman acting thusly. My shock and wonder must have shown on my face, for Mr. Jenkins explained.
"Cousins," he told me. "Supposedly estranged. My father was furious when he found out we were going to the same school, but he was too stubborn to pull me out."
"I'm from the disgraced side of the family," Miss Means said cheerily. "My mother married a man who didn't lord his money over everyone else and think himself the better for it. He refused to buy her--and my siblings and I--the latest fashions, and take us to the fanciest parties. Terrible, terrible."
"Terrible," Mr. Jenkins agreed. "My mother was almost disgraced for taking up with those awful Libertists," he smirked, "but then her sweetheart was killed in one of the ambushes--this was right after they came down from the mountain, mind you, and awful bad luck--and she was hurriedly married to my father, too grief-stricken and prospect-less to argue. Seven months later, I was born." He winked at me, and I am sure I turned bright scarlet, though for the wink or the insinuation, I am not sure. How could these people speak so bluntly? I had never heard anything like it.
"You just chided me for talking of conception," Miss Means said, prodding him in the ribs once more.
"Well, it is different when I do it." Mr. Jenkins adjusted his shirt collar (which was still very nicely starched, if rather grungy from a week's wear in the mountains) and stood up. "I figure they're about done by now," he said, and sure enough, as soon as he was standing there came the sound of talking and stretching and walking about from the main room. "I'm good," he grinned, and reached down to help up Miss Means.
Zebediah stood and helped me up as I asked, "What now? More lessons?"
"Bed," Miss Means told me. "We've all worked hard today. You may not think you are tired now, but trust me. The moment your head touches your... er, coat, you'll be out like a light." As if to punctuate her words, she leaned over to blow out both candles, and the four of us made our way back into the main cavern mostly by feel and the splinter of light coming in through the narrow doorway.